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Outside » Natural World

Drop Some Knowledge for Science — Take part in the Greater Backyard Bird Count

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Believe it or not, citizen scientists are on a roll. The National Audubon Society, in its quest to learn more about birds around our homes, has asked John Q. Public to help it understand what's going on among metropolitan bird populations by taking part in the the Greater Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).

Each year, on Feb. 17 and through President's Day weekend, Audubon, Cornell and Project Feederwatch—with help from Wild Birds Unlimited—get their heads together and give our backyard birds a closer look. This activity would be impossible without the help of millions of birdlovers who report the goings-on of the birds they feed.

The photo below, taken by Karl Bittler, Sisters resident and retired head of the Sisters School Maintenance crew, is an outstanding example of what the GBBC is all about. He has documented information on predation of our backyard birds, which is vital to understanding what impacts small bird populations.

Sure, some people find such interaction between predator and prey somewhat distasteful, but hey, that's a real part of the world of nature; its real-time checks and balances in a healthy ecosystem. Bittler is aware of the visits of that smallest member of the bird-eating hawks (the Accipiters), remaining alert to the Sharpies' visits, and like a good scientist, has recorded what was going on. Another event occurred that Bittler and the hawk didn't expect; just about the time the hawk thought the bird was all hers, a raven came down and took it away from her, and Bittler watched it happen...

The Great Backyard Bird Count begins Friday and will go through President's Day weekend.  The roots of GBBC are found in Project Feederwatch and are meant to focus on birds coming to backyard habitats—bird feeders, water features and the like. The GBBC database is now embedded in the larger eBird database. Over the GBBC weekend, any and all data will be included in the count, whether it's from folks participating in GBBC, or those out birding miles and miles away from their backyard.

Several birders have now taken to making the GBBC weekend completely motorless. Looking out your kitchen window, sitting on your back porch swing, or walking the neighborhood sharing your neighbor's backyard feeder activity are all motorless activities—but so is bicycling and watching backyard feeder activity. However, it would probably be a good idea to ask before you start watching birds with your binocs in someone else's backyard...

The GBBC is a free, fun, and an easy event to take part in that engages wannabe birders of all ages or birding experts in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations, like Bittler's action photo above, and the Nuthatches drinking in Abbot Shindler's backyard water feature above.

Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes—or as long as they wish—on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Each checklist submitted during the GBBC helps researchers at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society learn more about how our metropolitan birds are doing, and how to help them by protecting the environment we all share. Last year, more than 160,000 participants submitted their bird observations online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded anywhere in the world.

Bird populations are always shifting and changing; for example, 2014 GBBC data highlighted a large eruption of Snowy Owls across the northeastern, mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes areas of the United States. The data also showed the effects warm weather patterns are having on bird movement around the country. For more on the results of the 2016 GBBC, take a look at the GBBC Summary, and be sure to check out some of the images in the 2016 GBBC Photo Contest Gallery.

Gary Langham, chief scientist of Audubon puts it this way: "This count is so (much) fun because anyone can take part —we all learn and watch birds together—whether you are an expert, novice, or feeder-watcher. I like to invite new birders to join me and share the experience. Get involved, invite your friends, and see how your favorite spot stacks up."

For questions and comments, please contact the National Audubon Society or Cornell Lab of Ornithology: National Audubon Society citizenscience@audubon.or and/or Cornell Lab of Ornithology gbbc@cornell.edu


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